Trevor Lawrence briefly back in Georgia before beginning second NFL season

Jaguars coach Doug Pederson gives directions to quarterback Trevor Lawrence during a joint practice with the Falcons on Wednesday in Flowery Branch. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Jaguars coach Doug Pederson gives directions to quarterback Trevor Lawrence during a joint practice with the Falcons on Wednesday in Flowery Branch. (Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

FLOWERY BRANCH — There was Trevor Lawrence, throwing touchdowns on a football field in Georgia. It was like old times. Even the distinguishable flowing blond hair that pours out his helmet looked the same.

Lawrence, a Cartersville native who rose to prominence as a dynamite quarterback at Cartersville High School, was back in his home state as a professional quarterback. His Jacksonville Jaguars are conducting joint practices with the Falcons ahead of Saturday’s meeting, the final exhibition contest before the games count.

“It’s good to be back in Georgia,” Lawrence said Wednesday. “It seems so close. You hop on a plane, it’s like a 45-minute flight up here. So it’s close, but I haven’t been back in a while.”

Lawrence became the most acclaimed prep quarterback in America around 52 miles west of the Falcons’ facility. He accounted for 172 touchdowns in high school, where he went 52-2. That led him to Clemson, where he went 34-2 and became one of the more hyped quarterback prospects in recent memory.

Since a freshman Lawrence helped Clemson win a national championship in 2018 – the Tigers slaughtered vaunted Alabama 44-16 as Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns – he was anointed the next sensational signal-caller. Lawrence was considered THE quarterback prospect, the “best since Andrew Luck.”

This was the type of player who could save a franchise, just as players such as Peyton Manning did. Lawrence had the arm and pedigree that made him a player worth tanking a season to draft. For much of the 2020 campaign, it appeared the Jets would “win” Lawrence. Late in the season, the Jaguars’ incompetence won out, and they kept Lawrence in the South.

Luck had the Colts return to the playoffs in his rookie season. That was an exception, as sometimes even the best prospects aren’t enough to lead a lesser talented team to prominence. But Lawrence’s rookie season was an outlier in a different fashion, one so disastrous it’s still hard to comprehend.

Lawrence truly went from the penthouse (Clemson) to the outhouse (the Jaguars). He went from a program defined by its consistency and steadiness under coach Dabo Swinney to one of the messiest operations in American professional sports. The Jaguars have had one winning season since 2008 and have undergone constant turnover over that time.

In his first season, Lawrence threw 12 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and fumbled nine times. He completed 59.6% of his passes for 3,641 yards. He posted a 71.9 quarterback rating. He was sacked 32 times in 17 games. His struggles weren’t the storyline, however. They weren’t close to the biggest issue.

That was coach Urban Meyer, who quickly proved one of the worst coaching hires in NFL history. Meyer, among the great college coaches, was an abomination in the pros, on and off the field. With the team at 2-11, and Meyer having been the center of multiple off-field controversies, Jaguars owner Shad Khan fired Meyer. The Jaguars finished 3-14 and picked first in the draft for the second consecutive season.

Enter new coach Doug Pederson, who brings a respected NFL presence. Pederson was a professional quarterback and coached the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory only four years ago. The Jaguars, desperate for some form of stability after a trying decade, saw him as a safe, credible choice – and, more important, someone who can properly nurture Lawrence.

Lawrence praises Pederson and his staff as “very conversational.” He notes how they’re flexible and willing to adapt to their players’ preferences. “We jell really well,” he said Wednesday. As for his personal focus, Lawrence has tried to trim his turnovers significantly. His interception total led the league, and his fumbles were another glaring issue.

“Individually, I said when training camp started, it was about trying to limit turnovers,” Lawrence said. “That’s a simple thing but obviously super important. You saw last year we turned the ball over a lot. It’s hard to win games when you turn it over a lot. So that was a big emphasis.

“And also mastering the system. Going from one system to another and not having that carry over from Year 1 to Year 2, I really wanted to master the system and learn the ins and outs and feel great about it come Week 1. I feel like I’ve done that. There’s more to do, but I feel really comfortable in this system.”

The Jaguars’ future rides on Lawrence’s arm and mind. Last season, the NFL world saw the Bengals go from laughingstock to Super Bowl runner-up with the young Joe Burrow and a sturdy defense. To ask anything close of these Jaguars is unfair, but Pederson and Lawrence’s expected progression should be enough for improvement, the team hopes.

Lawrence said he’s grown increasingly comfortable in Pederson’s system. While Wednesday’s practice lacked explosive plays, Lawrence found veteran signee Christian Kirk on two touchdowns. He connected well with Zay Jones, another new veteran receiver. Jacksonville fortified its weaponry in the offseason to give Lawrence a better environment in which to grow.

He should feel extra comfortable this week back in Georgia. He hopes to meet his parents for food, though the schedule of an NFL quarterback doesn’t provide much down time. Still, just being in the area should summon great memories. Whatever Lawrence’s future holds, it started not too far from where he was tossing touchdowns Wednesday.

“Just having that small town, a lot of my life I was around football,” Lawrence said when the AJC asked how Cartersville helped shape him. “Football is huge in Cartersville. Just growing up in that small town, it has all kinds of character. That was the big thing. A lot of who I am goes to my faith, for one, and my family. That has a lot to do with Cartersville, too. The way my family raised me, humility was always a really important thing. I think that’s a staple of who I try to be. That’s mostly from my family but also from the small town, that’s a big part of it as well.”

So he’s felt right at home in Jacksonville, another Southern town that loves football; albeit one much larger than Cartersville.

“Obviously, you’re not near the ocean in Cartersville,” Lawrence said, laughing. “It has that (similar) feel to it. It’s a tight community. It’s a little different. Jacksonville is a big city, and there’s a lot of land. It has a little bit of the same feeling.”

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